Beneath the surface of the earth, within the dark and moist soil, lies the realm of roots. These essential parts of plants play multiple roles: they anchor the plant in the soil, absorb water and minerals, and occasionally serve as storage units for nutrients or carbohydrates. This last function makes some roots edible, known as taproots or vegetable roots. Taproots are identified by their thick main structure that goes deep into the ground, with smaller roots branching from them. Plants like beetroots, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, and turnips are examples of those with taproots.


Etymology map of beetroot (Beta Vulgaris) in different languages
The red root

As red as a beet

On one side of the ocean, we refer to it as “beetroots,” while on the other, it’s simply “beets.” Nevertheless, both terms denote the same plant: beta vulgaris, cultivated primarily for its leaves and, notably, its deep dark red root. Indeed, “red beet” is the name in Germanic languages (including English, but non-Germanic Slovenian and Estonian too). The term “beet” isn’t inherently Germanic; it traces back to the Latin Beta, possibly borrowed from the Celts.

Though seemingly distinct, “betterave” and “Barbabietola” are also daughters of the Latin vocable. In these cases, additional lexemes were incorporated: in French, “rave” refers to turnip, and in Italian, “barba” means root. Thus, Italian Barbabietola is literally the same as English “beetroot.” Do not thank me for the clarification.

More than beets

In Spain, another word prevails. For instance, Galician Remolacha or Basque erremotlatxa, share a common ancestor originally from Italy. Ramolaccio didn’t signify beetroot but rather a horseradish (from Latin “armoracia”). Another Latin-inherited term is “borrago” (not native but borrowed from Arabic), now employed in Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian as “burak.” Other Slavic languages adopted the Greek term instead, “σεῦκλον” (seûklon), evident in Russian “Свекла” (Svekla) or Macedonian “Свекло” (Sveklo).

The etymology of “beetroot” in foreign languages becomes more confusing in the East. Despite Albanian, Greek, and Turkish belonging to entirely different language groups, they share a common word for beets, which is not indigenous to any of them but rather foreign. Their words originated from Armenian “բանջար” (banǰar). Oh, wow. Interestingly, in Armenian this word refers to vegetables in general; beetroots are called “ճակնդեղ” (čakndeġ), which came from Persian “چغندر” (čoğondar). Funny, huh? The root that finds success across disparate languages from Bulgarian чукунду́р (čukundúr) to Bashkir сөгөлдөр (sögöldör).


Etymology map of carrot (Daucus carota) in different languages
Not only orange

In English “carrot” (Daucus carota) derives from the Ancient Greek “καρῶτον” (karôton). The dissemination of this root across Europe has been uneven, particularly favoring the south and west. An exception lies in the Iberian Peninsula, where the Arabic term “sfanariyya” is deeply rooted in the local languages. However, the Arabs adopted it from another Greek word: σταφυλίνη ἀγρία (staphulínē agría)

In contrast, the eastern regions are predominantly influenced by the Slavic root mъrky, it took root even in non-Slavic languages like Lithuanian “morka” or Romanian “morcov”. It is likely related to the Proto-Germanic *murhǭ, which has evolved into modern terms like Swedish “morot” or German “Möhre.”

Despite carrots being commonly associated with the color orange, they actually come in various hues including white, red, and yellow. This last color is the one some languages identify with carrots: as seen in Norwegian gulrot means “yellow root“, or in Hungarian “sárgarépa” (yellow turnip) also adopted by Serbians.


Etymology map of garlic (allium sativum) in different languages
Some kind of leek

So, if I said I needed some “spear-leek,” you might be scratching your head. But did you know that garlic originates from Old English gārlēac, which literally means “spear-leek”?

In many Germanic languages, particularly from an etymological perspective, the word for garlic is believed to stem from the term for leek, originating from Proto-Germanic “laukaz.” Both garlic and leek belong to the Allium genus, alongside onions, shallots, and chives, which explains the linguistic similarities in certain languages. For instance, in Serbian, “bijeli luk” translates to “white leek,” a parallel also found in Scandinavian languages.

Most Romance languages trace their term for garlic back to the Latin “alium,” while Slavic languages derive it from Proto-Slavic “česniki.” Turkic languages utilize words like “sarimsak” for garlic. Nonetheless, there are intriguing exceptions, such as Albanian, Greek, and Armenian, where the words are thought to share a common origin, although the precise root remains unidentified, probably of the form *skʰodoro.


Etymology map of ginger (zingiber officiale) in different languages
The wander root

Once upon a time, a fragrant root of a plant native to Southeast Asia embarked on a journey across continents, eventually reaching England on the other side of the Eurasian landmass. One of the earliest recorded terms for this root comes from Old Tamil, a language spoken in the southern corner of India, where it was called 𑀇𑀜𑁆𑀘𑀺𑀯𑁂𑀭𑁆 (iñcivēr, from iñci + vēr, meaning “ginger + root”). From there, this word traveled northward, appearing in Sauraseni Prakrit as 𑀲𑀺𑀁𑀕𑀺𑀯𑁂𑀭 (siṃgivera). Later, the Greeks borrowed it from Persian, adopting the term ζιγγίβερῐς (zingíberis).

Interestingly, modern Greeks do not commonly use this word or any derivatives of it, but “pepper root” πιπερόριζα (piperóriza). However, much later, Latin began to incorporate it, initially as “zingiberi” and later evolving into “gingiber” in Medieval Latin. This is likely how it was first heard in England, as evidenced by Old English terms like “gingifer” or “gingiber.”

Despite all originating from the same root, it’s fascinating to observe how the word evolved as it was adopted into different languages. For instance, Romanian “ghimber” was influenced by Hungarian “gyömbér,” while Estonian “ingver” was influenced by German “ingwer.” This linguistic map illustrates the diverse paths that the word for ginger took as it spread across cultures.


Etymology map of onion (allium cepa) in different languages
United layers of Onion

Sometimes words possess remarkable descriptive qualities, often unnoticed initially. Take the onion, for instance, it’s a vegetable composed of concentric layers, forming a sort of union within itself. Some aspects of the onion’s etymology can be deceptive at first glance: The only difference between “union” and “onion” is a single vowel. Even in French, “oignon” and “union” diverge slightly, yet the connection between them seems more than mere coincidence. Both words trace their origins back to the Latin word “ūniōnem.”

In Latin, apart from “unionem,” there were various names for onion, like “cepa,” and its diminutive form, “cepula.” The root “cepa” has indeed had a remarkable spread across the continent. The origin of the “cepa” root remains shrouded in mystery. Some scholars have drawn comparisons to the Ancient Greek κάπια (kápia), suggesting the existence of a shared ancestor, although it is just a theory.

Once more, certain elements of the onion’s etymology might initially appear misleading. For instance, languages across Scandinavia, Russia, and the Balkans share an etymological connection through the Proto-Germanic root “laukaz,” signifying “leek.” Similarly, the expected Proto-Turkic “sogan” is found in various Turkic languages, yet there are unexpected twists. Lithuanian, for instance, adopted this Turkic root, possibly rejecting the Slavic word used by neighboring languages. Moreover, in Kazakh, an Iranian word “piaz” is employed instead, diverging from the anticipated Turkic origin.


Etymology map of turnip (brassica rapa)

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *